Judge Dismisses Episcopal Mask Mandate Suit

Senior Circuit Court Judge Robert M. Foster has dismissed with prejudice a suit filed by Episcopal School of Jacksonville parents against the school’s mask mandate policy.

By dismissing with prejudice the plaintiffs are not allowed to refile or appeal.

The case stemmed from Episcopal’s mask mandate for all students and staff implemented at the beginning of the school year as cases of the Delta variant of COVID-19 were skyrocketing across Jacksonville.

The plaintiffs argued that the “Parents Bill of Rights” approved by the state legislature earlier this year supersedes any such rule and the parents should be the ones to decide if their kids should wear a mask. Attorneys for the school countered the legislation doesn’t apply to private schools since they are not under the jurisdiction of the State Board of Education.

The statute specifies that “[t]he state, any of its political subdivisions, any other governmental entity, or any other institution may not infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent,” without demonstrating the action is reasonable and necessary.

The legal dispute centers on just what “any other institution” means in a court of law. In a ruling handed down on September 22nd, Judge Foster ruled that it only applied to government entities, and not to a private school like Episcopal.

He cited legal precedence and the common law strict scrutiny standard saying “it has historically been applied only to government actors, violating fundamental rights or discriminating against a suspect classification.”

Foster wrote that “the word ‘institution’ is sufficiently broad to render the other listed terms as mere surplusage, regardless of how the term is interpreted.”

He added the Legislature “likely employed the phrase ‘any other institution’ as a final catch-all term to emphasize that the listing is inclusive of any and all government entities.”

Foster also noted that the parents’ interpretation of the legislation would lead to “constitutionally-dubious results.”

“If the parents’ Bill of Rights applied to private religious institutions (like Defendants), they would be forced to justify their constitutionally-protected religious practices to a court-by showing their practices are “necessary to achieve a compelling state interest”-instead of the state being required to justify its infringement of those rights under the same strict scrutiny standard. This is an absurd role reversal, and the Court will not countenance any interpretation raising such grave and far-reaching constitutional concerns,” Foster ruled.

In an email statement to Resident Community News, attorney Daniel Bean said they were disappointed with the ruling.

“The Plaintiffs’ respectfully disagree with the Trial Court’s decision as the Plaintiffs’’ believe ‘‘institutions’ does include private schools,” he said. “This case is solely about a parent’s right to make the healthcare decisions for their minor children and the Plaintiffs will continue to believe that.”

Episcopal attorney Stephen Busey said the law was clear that the plaintiffs’ didn’t have a case. “The parents brought this lawsuit in bad faith,” he said in a statement. “They agreed in their enrollment to comply with Episcopal’s policies. If they do not like the school’s policies, they can send their children to a different school.”

Episcopal officials have extended the mask mandate until at least October 8th and says it will continue to regularly review their safety precautions in light of any changing circumstances.

By Kevin J. Meerschaer
Resident Community News

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